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U.S. officers want to be sure before saying `Chemical Ali' is dead

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—In spite of top-level assertions that Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's cousin known as "Chemical Ali," was killed in a weekend bombing raid in Basra, officers here were unwilling Monday to declare him dead just yet.

The only certainty is that coalition forces are bent on hunting down the man who ordered the chemical attacks on Kurdish civilians in Halabja in 1988 that killed 5,000 civilians.

Al-Majid also is the commander of all military forces in southern Iraq, and is presumed to have Saddam's authority to launch a chemical attack on coalition forces.

"We felt he had his finger on the button," said Lt. Col. Dave Pere, senior watch officer at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) combat operations center southeast of Baghdad.

His death is considered so important to the war that U.S. and British forces have agreed that if it is confirmed it will be officially announced jointly by "national authorities" in Washington and London. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington on Monday that "we believe that the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end." British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon in London was more reserved, "We have some strong indications that he was killed in the raid."

But officers here were quick to note that al-Majid has been reported dead previously.

The most recent word of his death stems from a pre-dawn attack Saturday by two U.S. Air Force F-16s with six 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a building in the southern city of Basra.

Intelligence sources tipped off allied forces that al-Majid was to visit a house in Basra early Saturday and "we set up a strike for later that morning," said Marine Major Bryant Sewall, 36, of Scottsville, Ariz., air coordinator between IMEF and the British Army's 7th Armored Brigade.

In the residence at the time of the attack were believed to be Ali, an army general from the southern military district which Al-Majid commands and two colonels possibly related to Saddam, Sewall said.

"All I say is that we struck a location where he was, and we killed some people," said Col. Larry Brown, IMEF's operations chief.

British Army Lt. Col. Jamie Martin said he had unconfirmed reports that British forces who captured most of Basra on Sunday had recovered a body from the house's ruins "and are dealing with what's left" to try to positively identify it as al Al-Majid.

"The last report that came out was definitely, definitely, this man was dead," said British Army Major Steve McQueenie.

But McQueenie added that a new informant was on Monday providing "unsubstantiated information" to British soldiers that Chemical Ali was alive and trapped in a 40-city block sector of Basra that British troops do not control.

Martin and Pere said they found it odd that al-Majid would risk going into Basra, a city of more than 1 million people nearly surrounded by the British and dominated by Shiite Muslims considered to resent Saddam's regime.

A senior IMEF officer who has tracked al-Majid said he was not surprised—"If you're going to hold the south you have to be where the power is," he said—but added that he did not believe that al-Majid is dead.

"I don't think he's dead. But I think he's been hurt bad, and he's been neutralized," the officer said.

Coalition forces have tried to kill Chemical Ali on at least three earlier occasions starting with the 40-plus cruise missiles fired at Baghdad on the day the war started and, two days later, an air strike on his alleged home in the southeastern city of Amara. On March 30, Marines raided the south central town of Ash Shatra looking for al-Majid as well as the body of a Marine killed earlier.

After the Amara strike, one officer at the IMEF combat operations center picked up a microphone and gleefully announced to the 50-plus center staffers there that al-Majid was dead.

"Chemical Ali is no longer breathing air," the officer said.

But officers at headquarters are being less certain this time.

"Until they do the DNA I am not going to speculate. This guy has been like Freddy Krueger," Brown said. "We've killed him four or five times."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.